Friday, May 3, 2013

E-Friends and Jesus, and My Testimony

Someone has actually been searching this site, more than once, for the combination of terms "Donald Pennington" and "Jesus." For other readers, Donald Pennington is an e-friend who writes for Yahoo, sometimes about atheism. So, somebody out there is wondering: if I know of a decent human being (he appears to be one) who identifies as either atheist or agnostic, have I used this blog to try to convert that person to Christianity?

The short answer is no. If I had an e-friend who didn't know much about Christianity and wanted to know more, then I would use this blog as an opportunity to answer the person's questions. Since Donald Pennington writes as an ex-Christian who is familiar with Christian doctrine, but rejects it as a guide for his life--the technical term is "apostate"--it's not my job to teach him about Christian doctrine. It's my job to pray for him; it's God's job to restore his faith, if that can be done.

It's my job to practice Christianity, if possible, in such a way that apostates and Christian-phobics will see that Christians don't have to conform to the rather repulsive stereotypes of Christians that form in some people's minds...unfortunately, these stereotypes often result from attending churches, so all we can do about them is avoid conforming to them.

It's not my job to debate with Jewish or Pagan readers, or readers of any other persuasion, either. If they want answers to questions, I can provide those...from my experience or from the great library of Christian literature, as they prefer. One of the stereotypes I want to break up is the one that says that all Christians spend all their time beating other people over the head with their religion, or their version of their religion. Wrong. I write about things that interest non-Christians; sometimes I even write favorably about non-Christians, and I also write favorably about Christians whose beliefs aren't identical with mine. What I believe, and why, is a different topic than what other people are doing right.

Now for the long answer, a genre of memoir Christians call "testimony." If this were being posted on Live Journal first, this is the point at which I'd insert the cut. Blogspot doesn't have cuts, but those whose question has been adequately answered can click on the next title below this one, on your right.

What some Christians may be hoping to see here is an affirmation that, in some way, Jesus of Nazareth lives in us. I believe that this should be true. The Bible tells us that we--the people we would have been if we hadn't been Christians--are dead, and Jesus lives through us. This is a more intensive level of commitment than just trying to write or paint like some master artist in order to learn from his or her work, or even trying to carry on some part of whatever a departed friend used to do for the world. We have pledged ourselves to bury whatever part of our minds is incompatible with what Jesus might have done (if He had been us, born in our time, with our mix of gifts and disabilities, and so on) and dedicate ourselves completely to what Jesus would do.

I don't know to what extent anyone succeeds in actually doing this, but I, personally, take my commitment to do it seriously. Sometimes I think I'm the last living human who does, and sometimes I agree with the multitude who say that even trying to embody some moral-spiritual ideal we've never seen with our own eyes is crazy, but on the whole I think that Christian practice adds more good things to this life than it could possibly take away.

A related question someone asked in real life was: If you were born to Christian parents and brought up a Christian, and if you never rejected your parents' faith, how can you tell how, when, or whether you became a Christian in your own right? It's a fair question, though not an original one. The standard answer is that when a "cradle Christian" starts thinking independently about his or her own Christian practice, as distinct from just keeping the rules of Mommy's and Daddy's house, then s/he becomes a Christian--or "has a personal relationship with Jesus," some churches prefer, although this phrase sounds smarmy to me. (Sort of like name-dropping..."My Personal Relationship With Some Celebrity I Once Met at an Autograph Party...")

Does that give any objective indication of whether someone who may have been baptized or "confirmed" as a child has actually become a Christian adult? The objective evidence of Christian practice varies from person to person. As C.S. Lewis observed, a dyspeptic, rheumatic old Christian may seem much grumpier than a cheerful little boy with no particular religious beliefs; you may not realize to what extent the practice of Christian good will is making the old grumpy person more kind, more generous, and even less unhappy than s/he would be if s/he weren't a Christian.

Personally, I was born an introvert, at a time when many Americans were trying to convince everyone (especially young introverts) that an introverted personality was either a sin or a disease. This is, as Florence King observed, an experience of bigotry, oppression, and social rejection that would make anyone a misanthrope--a serious one!--in the absence of some sort of special spiritual experience.

As a child I had a mostly loving and supportive family, but when I ventured out into the world, to school and church and so on, I ran into that barrage of hateful messages introverts get, about how "PEOPLE" are so completely different from us and "PEOPLE" like things we hate and "PEOPLE" don't enjoy things we enjoy and there's something badly wrong with us that keeps us from being "PEOPLE." Meaning numb, dumb, scatterbrained, greedy, unethical extroverts. And guess what, the more we see of that kind of people, the lower our opinion of "PEOPLE" is going to be.

Many introverts buy into the lie that we're defective in some way, but those of us who developed healthy self-esteem from our supportive families have a better chance of recognizing that "PEOPLE" are defective and inferior to us...which is pretty close to the so-called "criminal mind." We can go from that cheerful, aloof disposition (that may have been mislabelled "shy" or "bashful") with which we were born, into a full-time practice of hate, after just a few exposures to extroverts.

What I learned in elementary school was, to a considerable extent, hate, and the need to do nasty things to others--take advantage of them, score off them, make them look or feel bad--before they did those things to me, so that all these "people" who had no natural sense of respect for anyone they saw as a potential "friend" would recognize me as an enemy to be feared, respect that, and leave me alone. I became a mean little kid, adept at verbal abuse, at stealing things I didn't need or even want except to show people I was clever enough to steal their stuff, at sowing discord, at thinking up pranks that weren't funny but did hurt the targets' feelings, at annoying and embarrassing people.

Fortunately, during adolescence most people start to develop what are called "spirituality centers" in our brains, to have feelings about ideals and God and eternity. I did. In my early teens I made a commitment to practice Christianity. At the time, all I consciously thought about "giving up" was petty larceny. The practice of good will developed over the years. I can truthfully say that, as an adult, I practice good will, charity, and generosity, and if I weren't a Christian it's very unlikely that I would ever even have tried to practice these things.

I went from grade eleven directly into a Christian college where most of my classes spent another four or eight months catching up with where my public high school left off in grade nine. Was the taxpayers' money wasted on the time I spent at this college? No, because this was where I met literally dozens of other kind, public-spirited Christians who had become poisonous little trolls, in elementary school, for the same reasons I had, and were now trying to recover our fundamental humanity. And I found that the church that sponsored the college wasn't helping. It was perpetuating the abuse to which we'd become accustomed, which we were now trying to stop practicing against one another.

I need to make this point very clear. By practicing good will I do not mean those nauseous forced smiles and obnoxious back-slaps that extroverts call "friendly." What I've learned, through years of practicing Christianity toward my own people (of all races and nations), is that people loathe that behavior; a big smile and loud greeting tell my people "Here comes an enemy, on the attack," and we still need and will probably always need to discourage that sort of thing. Even if our North American culture were able to restore the majority cultural ideal of limiting "outgoing" behavior to people who know each other well and know that they share a taste for it, my people would still need to make it clear that we do not enjoy the empty "small talk" and the greetings that don't lead to real conversations and the other tedious things with which extroverts waste everyone's time. How many Christians realize, these days, that Jesus specifically condemned backslapping and "greetings in the marketplace"?

What I mean by practicing good will is informed by what Jesus actually said on the subject. We're not told that Jesus ever urged anybody to smile; we're not told that He ever smiled. We're told that He shared food with the hungry, that He healed the sick (although even He didn't always succeed), that He read to people who couldn't read. His practice of good will was very objective and practical. No blather about emotional feelings and the nuances of relationships--we've been told that women have more tolerance for that kind of garbage than men have, but I don't have much tolerance for it, and ain't I a woman? When Jesus told people how to practice good will He said things like "help the blind" and "visit those in prison" and "if someone asks you to walk with him one mile, walk with him two miles; if someone asks for your coat, give him your shirt as well."

My observation has been that people who force smiles and call out endless, mindless greetings are almost never to be found feeding the hungry, reading to the blind, or otherwise practicing good will in any publicly visible way. I wouldn't know whether some of them may have real Christian ministries within their own families. For their sakes I hope they have.

Many people have been told that acting cheerful, acting "outgoing," and maybe even practicing Positive Thinking, are what Christianity is all about. Many try to make these things their spiritual practice. Since I don't find much to recommend these things in the Bible I can't agree with the people who try to convince themselves that Jesus came into the world to save us from ever being quiet, serious, or able to recognize when improvements are needed and make those improvements. They may be sincere Christians, and Positive Thinking may be the point they have reached on their spiritual path, but their practice is not mine.

So the Christians with whom I have fellowship may be perceived as radical and eccentric in some Christian churches. I don't see this as a bad thing. Christianity, after all, started out as a radical and eccentric movement within some Jewish fellowships.

Personally, I'm accountable only to God. I know a lot of churches have evolved from giving people practical counsel on family, business, and social life to counselling everybody on how to fit into the extrovert mold...and unless I receive very clear guidance, very clearly from God rather than mortals, I believe my Christian ministry is primarily to my own kind of people, who don't need and shouldn't try to fit into the extrovert mold. I believe I'm called to remind people that my people value "friendliness" only when it develops over time in a relationship that begins with respect; I believe it's wrong to encourage backslapping, instant first-naming, and similar obnoxious extrovert behavior.

Unlike Florence "Misanthrope" King, who's not a close relative so far as I know, I believe it's possible to discourage pushy manners while encouraging people who actually want to be friends. This is part of my Christian practice. However, Jesus didn't tell people to be "friendly" with, or make friends of, people of any background or temperament; He told them to do things that practically, materially helped people--and that's a much bigger part of my Christian practice.

Now what has any of this to do with Donald Pennington or any other e-friend? I'm not here to tell anyone else's story...not even Grandma Bonnie Peters's. (After her wrist was broken I typed in some recipes for her; now that she's typing again, and has the use of her own computer again, I'm holding her accountable for her own contributions to this web site. Which should be more numerous, and which I assure readers will be more valuable, than the ones I've posted on her behalf.)

Suffice it to say: although a lot of falsification, necessary and otherwise, occurs on the Internet, over time it's possible to find out the most important things we need to know in order to think of people as friends. We may have been misled about their age or gender or how many people share one screen name, but we do know how well they write, how well informed they are, what sort of sense of humor they have, what sort of ethics they support and, to a very limited extent, how consistently they practice their ethics.

Out of a few dozen e-friends whom I would invite to share my home, rent a real-world friend's rental property, or apply for a job with my recommendation, if the situation made it seem appropriate, there are maybe half a dozen whom I have. Donald Pennington is one of them. In real life I probably wouldn't want to share an office with him (he's described himself as a smoker); in cyberspace I'm free to love him like a sister, and do.

As an e-friend I might some day be able to find you a job or apartment; I might give you my shirt, if you needed it; I'd even consider giving you a kidney, although there ought to be better ones out there...and I certainly would offer you any Christian teaching or counselling that you could get from me more efficiently than you could get it from books on the subject, if you asked. But, unless people express a specific need for more personal words on these subjects from me, I imagine that readers have already read (or could or should have read) any of the hundreds of good Christian books on the market. Corrie ten Boom and Joni Eareckson Tada had livelier testimonies than I have, and C.S. Lewis and Billy Graham have explained the doctrines better.

Sharing our stories, even blaring our opinions, over a loudspeaker in some cases, is appropriate in politics where the number of people who devote time and money to pushing an idea is supposed to direct the course of public policy. Spiritual experience is different from politics or advertising. Our spiritual "stories" are meant to be shared, but not blared, or shoved in people's faces, or used to manipulate people. I might enjoy writing more about the Bible and prayer and practice, but I'll publish that kind of thing only if you readers make it clear that you want to read it.